Tony Hawk's American Wasteland Review
Those of us who are old enough to remember the classic arcade and NES games Skate or Die and 720 will recall that not only did these titles have great skate moves both in the street and on halfpipes, but they also had a bit of an action and adventure element as well. It's no surprise, then, that Neversoft, with the seventh game in the Tony Hawk series, continues that tradition with that same combination of story and skating that players seem to really enjoy.
With Tony Hawk's American Wasteland, Neversoft has gotten rid of some of the worst parts of the last two games - Tony Hawk's Underground is no more, and most fans will welcome this change. Bam Margera and his wacky "let's break the world" antics are no longer a major part of the Tony Hawk games, and while you'll still be breaking stuff, you're given an actual decent reason to do it in Wasteland: to salvage the stuff you break and build your own skatepark with it.
American Wasteland's story mode takes place solely in Los Angeles, which is a first for the Tony Hawk games which usually take you on this huge world tour. (The Classic Mode combines some new and old levels around the world, but I'm not really counting those levels - yet.) You'll be visiting Hollywood, Beverly Hills, East L.A., Downtown, and a few side areas like the Vans Skatepark, an abandoned casino, and even an oil rig (reminiscent of Tony Hawk 2X on the original Xbox).
You'll play as one of five different guys - no girls this time, and no changing the faces or head shapes, as this is reserved for Classic and online play only now - who decides to move from the midwest out to L.A. and make a name for himself as a skater. But trouble starts early, even if he makes a few friends early on. As you discover the Skate Ranch and the guy who's squatting there (fictional legendary skater Iggy Van Zandt), the story turns into you trying to save the classic skating spot while building it up into a very unique skatepark.
To do this, you'll be completing various goals that either move the story forwards, or build up the Skate Ranch. Sadly, unlike past games, there's little mystery in these goals. The game sets your skater up, perfectly placed to do the one move (or small sequence of moves) required to finish the goal, and then it's on to another. Because of how fast these things fly past, a Tony Hawk veteran can finish both the Story mode and the Classic mode together in only five or six hours. This isn't really a bad thing, but I wish that the player had to figure out how to complete goals like in past Tony Hawk games instead of being told how. When the game baby-steps you through grinding this one rail and then hitting this part of the wall to bring something crashing to the ground, it's not nearly as satisfying as figuring it out for yourself.
The difficulty level must also be addressed. The Normal difficulty is too easy for Tony Hawk veterans, and it's too hard for those new to the series. Those who've played every past game multiple times through are going to have little trouble flying through these goals on Normal, and are much more likely to find a challenge on Sick difficulty instead. But for those who have never played one of these games, the game starts throwing you into doing manuals and reverts inside of the first 15 minutes of gameplay. These are not easy to figure out the first time because they require pretty exacting timing. If you've not played a Tony Hawk game in your life, then be aware: American Wasteland's learning curve for novices is steep, but the game's worth it in the end.
Along with a handful of new skating moves like one-footed grinds and Bert slides, THAW also for the first time includes riding BMX bikes around. You might expect the controls to be pretty shaky, but they're actually pretty good and there's a nice selection of moves to complete as well. You'll never need to use bikes to finish the story mode, and you won't be able to take them into the Classic mode either, so it feels like they spent all their time making the bikes work well without spending the effort to integrate them into the actual game.
You've got to be wondering what the benefits of playing this game on the Xbox 360 are over the original Xbox version which was released almost a month before. And honestly, there's only one: higher-resolution graphics. The textures are sharper and the shadows work better, while the game can also run at 720p and 1080i video modes for those that have HDTVs. Other than that, it's the same Xbox Live play, the same single player, and the same controls. The Xbox 360 version of the game also costs $10 more than the original versions (sometimes more, as many stores have original Xbox games on sale now), and only those who absolutely go gaga over eye candy are likely to find it worth the extra cash.
Going online with American Wasteland is fun and pretty easy, but I found that most of the high-score modes had players that totally eclipsed me in skill to silly levels. I don't think I'm a bad player and I can reasonably knock out a million-point combo pretty often, but these guys were beating me by an order of magnitude repeatedly. Unless I was playing one of the goofy game modes like Firefight or Capture the Flag, I had almost no chance of winning. Overall, I just wasn't having a whole lot of actual fun in online play. If you can get matched up with players who are at your skill level then it's a blast, but I think it'll be tough to do that the way THAW handles online play.
Just like the other versions of the game, the 360 version of THAW tries to boast about having no load times and how you can combo from one area of the city to another. Well, yes, that's technically true, but the game still throws you into these long, visually dull hallways to skate through which gives the 360 time to load up the next level's data. The amusing part is that there is also a bus you can take around various levels, and the load times for doing this are about half of what it takes to actually skate through the stupid tunnel-like areas to get from one area to another. I wish we just had loading screens, because it'd take less time to get from one place to another.
Over the years, the Tony Hawk series has built up many features that are all about customizing the experience for yourself. In Story mode, you can get tattoos, buy clothing or new decks for your skateboards, and even create graffiti tags to spray around the world. There's also the create-a-skater mode which lets you pick between genders and customize the look of the character down to a pretty detailed level; it's too bad that the Story mode was designed in such a way that you can't take your created skater into it. Finally, there's the skatepark creation mode, but I've never been much of a fan of this because you just can't do anything really innovative. The skateparks that players make can never be near as detailed as what the Neversoft guys include in either the Story or Classic modes.
Many of the sound effects in American Wasteland have been used repeatedly in past games - they've been tweaked over the years to make up a pretty decent soundscape overall, and even the voice acting in this game is surprisingly pretty decent. The actual character models that are saying these lines? Sadly, the 360 included improved textures for the world, but they did little to the characters, and it really shows once you start playing this game on an HDTV. It really hurts the presentation of the 360 version overall; maybe next year, Neversoft.
The music in this game takes on a bit of a new-punk-meets-old-punk style as more recent bands cover classic punk songs from the 80s. It's a unique idea and there are still some newer tracks from rock and rap bands in here, but overall I've found that the soundtrack is so low-key in this game that it seems like Neversoft and Activision are tired of having to come up with a whole new soundtrack every year. By default, the sound effects are set at a level of 10 in the game, and music's set at 2 - yeah, you can turn it up, but I'm not sure you don't want to just load up your own songs in the 360 Media interface. Either way, that should give you an idea of how crucial the developers found the music to be in American Wasteland.
When it comes down to it, it's hard to deny that Tony Hawk's American Wasteland is the best game in the series so far. For its time, it's not the best one (I'll leave that honor to Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 back from 2000), but it's still a lot of fun - as long as pro players don't mind how easy it'll be for them, nor if the newbies don't mind how hard it is for them. I do hope that Neversoft soon decides to slow down their frantic yearly pace and takes two years to make the next Tony Hawk, though, because I'm not sure this series is going to last much longer considering how the last few games have gone.